The Highbrow

Desperate Feminist Wives

Why wanting equality makes women unhappy.

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In The Feminine Mystique, the late Betty Friedan attributed the malaise of married women largely to traditionalist marriages in which wives ran the home and men did the bread-winning. Her book helped spark the sexual revolution of the 1970s and fueled the notion that egalitarian partnerships—where both partners have domestic responsibilities and pursue jobs—would make wives happier. Last week, two sociologists at the University of Virginia published an exhaustive study of marital happiness among women that challenges this assumption. Stay-at-home wives, according to the authors, are more content than their working counterparts. And happiness, they found, has less to do with division of labor than with the level of commitment and “emotional work” men contribute (or are perceived to contribute). But the most interesting data may be that the women who strongly identify as progressive—the 15 percent who agree most with feminist ideals—have a harder time being happy than their peers, according to an analysis that has been provided exclusively to Slate. Feminist ideals, not domestic duties, seem to be what make wives morose. Progressive married women—who should be enjoying some or all of the fruits that Freidan lobbied for—are less happy, it would appear, than women who live as if Friedan never existed.

Of course, conclusions like these are never cut-and-dried. This study is based on surveys conducted between 1992 and 1994, and measuring marital happiness is a little like trying to quantify sex appeal. But the data are nonetheless worth pausing over, especially if, like me, you’ve long subscribed to the view that so-called companionate couples have the best chance at sustaining a happy partnership. Among all the married women surveyed, 52 percent of homemakers considered themselves very happy. Yet only 45 percent of the most progressive-minded homemakers considered themselves happy. This might not seem surprising—presumably, many progressive women prefer to work than stay at home. But the difference in happiness persists even among working wives. Forty-one percent of all the working wives surveyed said they were happy, compared with 38 percent of the progressive working wives. The same was the case when it came to earnings. Forty-two percent of wives who earned one-third or more of the couple’s income reported being happy, compared with 34 percent of progressive women in the same position. Perhaps the progressive women had hoped to earn more. But they were less happy than their peers about being a primary breadwinner—though you might expect the opposite. Across the board, progressive women are less likely to feel content, whether they are working or at home, and no matter how much they are making.

What’s really going on here? The conservative explanation, of course, is that the findings suggest that women don’t know what they really want (as John Tierney implied in the New York Times, and Charlotte Allen suggested in the Los Angeles Times). Feminism, they argue, has only undermined the sturdy institution of marriage for everyone. The feminist and liberal argument is that reality hasn’t yet caught up to women’s expectations. Women have entered the workforce, but men still haven’t picked up the domestic slack—working wives continue to do 70 percent or more of the housework, according to one study. If you work hard and come home and find you have to do much more than your husband does, it’s little wonder that you would be angry and frustrated.

Neither explanation seems quite right. (The authors found that equal division of labor seems not to correlate strongly with happiness, either.) What is left out of both lines of argument are the strange ways that rising expectations play into happiness. The sexual revolution tried to free women and men from set-in-stone roles. But the irony turns out to be that having a degree of certainty about what you want (and being in a peer group that feels the same way) is helpful in making people happy. Having more choices about what you want makes you less likely to be happy with whatever choice you end up settling on. Choosing among six brands of jam is easy. But consumers presented with 24 types often leave the supermarket without making a purchase. In much the same way, the more you scrutinize a relationship, the more likely you are to find fault with it. The study’s authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, speculate that fault-finding on the part of wives makes it hard for men to do the emotional work that stabilizes marriages. Meanwhile, traditionalist women—a significant portion of whom are Christian—expect less emotional work from their husbands, Wilcox and Nock speculate, which makes it easier for them to shake off frustrations, and less likely to nag. Whether or not any of this is the case, we do know that traditional marriages have the advantage of offering clearly defined roles. And traditionalist wives have a peer group fundamentally in agreement about what it wants and expects from husbands, creating a built-in support system.

Consider the evidence that evangelical women—who in general endorse traditional gender roles—are better at adjusting psychologically to situations they don’t find ideal than feminists are. Studies of evangelical wives who have to work for financial reasons show that, as rigid as gender roles are in their community, women are fairly adept at being what sociologist Sally Gallagher calls “pragmatically egalitarian.” That is, they continue to be happy with the division of labor, and to see their husbands as providers, even though they’d prefer to be at home. It’s a kind of utilitarian double-think, Gallagher and others argue—and it helps explain why traditionalist women who work might consider themselves happier than feminists who are still struggling to feel secure in their decisions. 

It may be, too, that traditional marriage today is happier than it was, thanks to feminism. Traditionalists have been able to maintain the pre-Freidan goals, but all the societal movement in the other direction has had a freeing effect on their marriages, too. (That is, Dad still works and Mom stays at home, but thanks to the general liberalizing of society, Dad can feel OK about helping more at home and Mom can feel OK about having a chance to work more, too.)  In other words, their goal has stayed the same (that is, maintaining traditional marriage roles), but they can pursue it under much less draconian circumstances. No wonder they’re happier. They’re free-riders on the women’s movement (though they’d deny it), whereas feminists have descended into a tangle of second guesses and contradictions.

Dismantling a tradition and carving out a new one can be far more confusing than adjusting to glitches in the status quo. Progressive women find themselves navigating marriage as a choose-your-own-adventure story, which raises the chances of feeling that they perhaps made the wrong turn along the way. A progressive-minded woman doesn’t just have higher expectations; she’s more likely to pay attention to every setback, and see her husband’s failure to listen at dinner as evidence of larger inequity. Meanwhile, the paradox of rising expectations can make real differences seem bigger even as they grow smaller.

Would reverting to traditional gender roles make women happier? Hardly. This study doesn’t mean that the feminist genie should—or can—be put back in the kitchen. (For one thing, the study found that working at home made progressive women less happy than their traditionalist counterparts.) But it may be a bracing reminder that worrying endlessly over choices isn’t the path to greater freedom, equality, or happiness for women. Wilcox and Nock’s study leaves husbands out of the picture. What we might wait for is a study that examines husbands’ happiness—and tells us something about how they view male cultural scripts that remain comparatively stagnant. Maybe for them, too, clear (even rigid) expectations would correlate with marital happiness. Or maybe if it were an easier choice for them to spend more time with their children, or to turn down a prestigious office job because they want more freedom, everyone would be happier. In any case, the progressive lesson of the moment (or is it a traditionalist lesson?) is that it’s time to focus less on “her” marriage—and to remember that sometimes the personal is just personal.